Miss. mental health agency seeks $50M budget hike

Published 1:51 pm Thursday, September 24, 2009

Mississippi agency directors were told to keep budget requests modest in a tight economy, but state mental health director Ed LeGrand has requested an extra $50 million for next year.

That would be a 25 percent increase in the agency’s funding, and the request Tuesday drew a mild rebuke from one of the legislative money handlers.

“That number would be eye-popping even in good times,” said Sen. Billy Hewes III, R-Gulfport.

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LeGrand said he felt an obligation to seek funding for a wide variety of services to help some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, including people who are suicidal.

He said much of the state money he’s seeking would replace federal stimulus money that is available through December 2010, the middle of the budget year for which lawmakers are planning.

LeGrand acknowledged the Department of Mental Health is unlikely to receive the full $50 million increase. He said the agency can survive with an extra $10 million.

“We’re all just kind of wrestling with a bear we don’t know how to get a handle on right now,” LeGrand told the Joint Legislative Budget Committee.

House Speaker Billy McCoy, who’s on the committee, told LeGrand lawmakers will try to help even though state tax collections have fallen short of expectations for each of the past 12 months.

“I’m deeply grateful to you and I thank God for this agency,” said McCoy, D-Rienzi.

The 14-member Budget Committee is holding hearings this week to start working on an overall state spending plan for the year that begins July 1. The full 122-member House and 52-member Senate will get to vote on dozens of spending bills early next year.

Lawmakers usually try to pass a budget by early April, three months before the fiscal year begins.

Because of lagging revenues, they missed their deadline for the current year and passed most of the $6 billion budget during a hectic three-day special session in late June. The state Public Service Commission remained unfunded until early July because of a dispute about staffing.

Leaders of the state Health Department and state Department of Corrections also appeared before the Budget Committee on Tuesday.

Dr. Mary Currier, the state epidemiologist, said the Health Department is seeking an additional $3 million next year from the state general fund, an increase of about 9 percent from that source.

The department receives money from several sources, including the federal government and annual payments from Mississippi’s 1997 settlement of a far-reaching lawsuit against cigarette makers.

Corrections Commissioner Chris Epps asked lawmakers for an extra $7.3 million for the prisons for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30. He also requested an additional $11.4 million for the year that begins July 1, about a 3 percent increase.